The Tavern Maid
“I kept wondering exactly why you chose the busiest night of the week for this,” Jenkara said, his smile half illuminated by silverly moonlight. “And then I realized: you want me all to yourself.”
Balini leaned back against the wall of the tavern, her wings trembling in anticipation. She smirked and and let her eyes trace the lines of Jenkara’s face. “You have no idea.”
“And no one will miss us.”
“I know.” Balini hummed softly as Jenkara leaned into her, one arm braced against the wall by her head. She licked her lips and fluttered her eyelashes, waiting for him to move closer. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Jenkara’s eyebrows raised slightly. “What took you so long?”
With their lips separated by just a hairsbreadth, Balini smiled sweetly. “Do you want to know why I haven’t killed you yet?” she whispered.
Balini’s fingers curled around Jenkara’s throat and suddenly, he was thrown against the wall. “Because I had to be sure I wasn’t taking an innocent life,” she snarled. A harsh wind whipped through the empty clearing and the gentleness of Balini’s smile turned cold. “I know what you did. I know about every child you hurt and you’re never going to hurt another.”
Bright, golden light burned deep in Balini’s eyes. “Do you remember Vikranti?” she said as glowing tendrils began to trail down her arms. “They only found the burnt scraps of her sari, the one her mother made for her.” A loud snap sounded and Balini smiled when Jenkara let out a strangled scream. “Maybe you remember Debali? They actually found her body.”
There was another loud snap and Jenkara’s broken legs gave out. A golden sleeve of light had encapsulated Balini’s arm as she held him several inches off the ground, her magic seeping through his skin. His eyes widened as he desperately tried to gasp for air, each of his limbs flailing wildly.
“No one will hear you, Jenkara. No one will care that you’re dead because we all know that this is what you deserve.” His left arm snapped in half and despite his writhing and crying, no sound escaped his lips. “You broke Meera’s arm like that, you know. I’m sure you remember. And your right arm?” Balini smiled when it broke at the elbow. “That’s how you left Chandrika. Well, except for the bashed in skull.”
Watching her victim thrash soundlessly, Balini could feel the adrenaline pumping through her veins. She felt magic humming in her fingertips and the cool sea air blowing against her back served to invigorate her.
“I hope your gods let your soul rot for eternity.”
Her fingers curling even tighter around Jenkara’s neck, Balini grimaced and focused her magic on his spine. The sound of cracking bones echoed around them and Jenkara was limp in her hand. His body tumbled carelessly to the floor and Balini stumbled backwards, swaying slightly as the gold light that had enveloped her body suddenly disappeared.
Wiping the sweat away from her brow, she cast a furtive glance about her. Her shoulders slumped in relief upon realizing she was alone and she leaned forward so her forehead rested against the tavern wall. Once she had readjusted her sari and long plait, Balini hurried back inside, failing to notice the woman watching her from the shadows of the clearing’s edge.
Balini’s gaze caught on the doorway of the tavern as two people stepped inside, the early morning light glowing around them. Mara - a tall, sinewy fairy with shining onyx eyes and a short mass of dark brown locks - was already known to Balini, but her companion was not. The stranger’s thick, auburn hair fell in curls to their waist where a patterned flax skirt was tied. Eyes reminiscent of the ocean were framed by long, dark eyelashes and an intricate tattoo decorated the person’s strong chin and full lips.
The pair wandered over to a table situated in an isolated corner of the tavern. Mara leaned over to whisper in her companion’s ear as Balini started towards them, her heart pounding heavily in her chest. As she reached the table, Mara turned and flashed Balini a charming smile.
“Arrack again for you, Mara?” Balini asked, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
Leaning back in her chair, Mara hummed. “For both of us, please,” she said. Then, with a grin, Mara gasped. “Do you have any mutton rolls?”
Balini smiled and nodded. “Yes, I’ll bring some out for you. One moment.”
Returning to the table several minutes later, Balini set out a small plate of mutton rolls as well as two cups of arrack. Balini rested her hands on her hips. “Is there anything else I can get for you two?” she asked.
“Not at the moment, thank you.”
Leaning casually against the counter on the opposite end of the tavern, Balini spared several discreet glances in Mara’s direction. She watched curiously when she noticed only Mara speaking and the stranger merely responding with a nod of their head. Attempting to wait patiently until Mara needed her assistance, Balini busied herself with taking care of the other customers scattered across the room.
“How is everything?” Balini asked when she was waved over.
Mara smiled and leaned forward slightly so her weight rested upon one of her elbows. She brushed away a few loose strands of hair from her eyes and looked up at Balini, wings fluttering softly. “I’d like to talk with you,” she said seriously.
Balini looked to the stranger in confusion. “Is something wrong?”
“No, but there’s something I need to discuss with you.”
Balini furrowed her brows, her lips drawn into a half frown. “What’s so important that you’ve suddenly turned so serious?” she wondered.
Reaching out and brushing her calloused fingers along the back of Balini’s hand, Mara sighed. “The matter I wish to discuss with you is very delicate. I’d rather not let strangers hear it.”
The serious change in mood startled Balini and her brows furrowed as Mara’s fingertips slowly drifted to her wrist. Quickly drawing her hand back, Balini gestured behind her. “Follow me,” she said simply before turning and walking off.
Across the room from the tavern entrance was an open doorway with a simple, worn curtain serving as a door. Balini pushed the curtain aside as she passed through the doorway and into a small room furnished only with a few sleeping mats. Several different sized packs were scattered across the floor, each positioned next to a specific mat.
Standing to one side of the room so as not to disturb anything, Balini turned to face Mara. The strange and very silent companion entered behind her; Balini looked expectantly between the pair and waited for one of them to speak up.
“I have a proposition for you,” Mara said, finally. Balini raised her eyebrows, her curiosity piqued, but said nothing. “We were forced to relieve one of our crew members recently after she was blinded in battle. The captain is looking for someone to replace her and I think you’d be perfect for the job.”
Balini scoffed. “What makes you think I want to be a pirate?”
“You work here. You couldn’t be more prepared for a pirate’s life. A woman has to be strong when she has the kind of job that you have.”
“I’m no pirate, Mara. I’m not even a sailor.”
“But you can fight,” Mara countered.
Balini shook her head. “I really can’t.” Stepping past the two women, she started for the doorway. “It was good to see you again, Mara, but I have work to do. If you’ll excuse me-”
“I’ve seen you fight,” Mara said quickly. “I know what you’re capable of.”
Balini froze mid step. Slowly, she looked back at Mara and the stranger standing next to her. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
Mara exhaled softly. “I saw you last night, outside the tavern. We could use someone like you.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Balini saw Mara rest a hand on the hilt of her dagger. Her heartbeat quickened. Mara and her silent companion were staring at her, waiting for something. Fear and paranoia overrode logic, and Balini suddenly felt cornered and threatened. They knew her secret and she was in more danger with each passing second.
Extending both of her arms in a single, smooth motion, Balini threw the pair against the opposite wall. She reached for the knapsack beside her mat, but was suddenly shoved backwards against the doorway. The stranger was crouching defensively in front of Mara, who was leaning against the wall.
Bracing herself against the doorway, Balini pushed herself to her feet. “You’re a mage,” she said breathlessly, watching in awe as golden light faded from the stranger’s eyes.
The stranger helped Mara stand. “We’re not here to threaten you, Balini,” Mara assured her. “But you have to trust us.”
“You were spying on me.”
Mara shook her head. “When the captain said we needed a new crew member, I immediately thought of you. I wanted to speak to you last night, but- well, you were otherwise engaged."
Balini considered the other fairy's explanation. She looked momentarily at the stranger and her wings bristled. "Kai is just trying to protect me,” Mara said as she rested a hand on their shoulder. “Nobody is threatening you, not Kai, and not me.”
Balini looked skeptically between the two women. She wanted to believe Mara was telling the truth, but experience had taught her otherwise. Her instincts were screaming for her to leave everything behind and run.
“Why should I trust you?” Balini asked.
“I have no reason to lie to you.”
“You’re strong, clever, and clearly a powerful mage,” Mara answered. “And I like you.” Balini began to protest, but Mara cut her off before she could say more than a few words. “Speak to Captain Nirvatha.” The name struck Balini like a blow to the head. She froze and stared in shock at Mara as the other fairy continued. “If you still aren’t interested, then nobody will stop you. But at least consider it.”
Breathlessly, Balini asked, “Did you say Nirvatha?”
Balini huffed as she adjusted the strap of her knapsack for the third time in the last minute. She spared Kai a sideways glance, both curious and wary of the stranger who had remained silent since she first stepped inside the tavern. Kai’s gaze caught hers and for a few short moments, the two stared tensely at one another. Then Kai looked away and strode forward so they were in step with Mara.
The docks weren’t very far from the tavern and the trio reached them within a few short minutes. Mara gestured to the far end of the docks where several large ships had berthed. There were enough ships there that it was difficult for Balini to tell where one ended and another began.
“Our ship is the furthest one,” Mara said. Balini nodded her understanding as Mara led them down the wooden walkway.
“Oh,” Balini breathed, her eyes widening.
Kai smiled, her shoulders shaking with silent, gentle laughter, and Mara smirked. “She’s magnificent, isn’t she?” the fairy said knowingly.
Balini nodded as she gazed at the beautiful, breathtakingly enormous ship waiting at the edge of the dock. A simple gangway led from the dock to the deck of the ship where a handful of people, all different races and genders, were busy loading supplies onboard. Balini hesitated as she neared the gangway, suddenly feeling very out of place amongst the pirates brushing past her.
Noticing Balini’s uncertainty, Mara paused for a moment. She started to speak, but then changed her mind and continued up the gangplank. Kai, who was standing just behind Balini, raised their eyebrows slightly and waited. With a deep, steadying breath, Balini followed in Mara’s footsteps onto the ship.
Once on deck, Balini found herself immersed in a flurry of movement as fairies, humans, and elves hurried around her. Mara turned and said, “Kai, could you find the captain for me? I’d like to show Balini around deck first.”
Kai nodded and then disappeared into the crowd. Balini, meanwhile, was gazing awestruck around at the ship that loomed above her. The last vessel she had traveled on was a simple cargo ship, modest and much smaller than the one she was standing on. Mara lightly cleared her throat and offered Balini a half smile.
“She’s a beautiful ship.” Balini was uncertain of how to reply, so she settled for a single nod of agreement. “Originally built for some supposedly important war for some supposedly important king. Until the captain and first mate stole her from the original crew,” Mara explained with an amused laugh.
Before Balini could ask about the captain like she desperately wanted to, a voice sounded just behind her. “Are you showing off to a pretty local again, Mara?”
Standing behind the pair was a tall woman with curly black hair. Mara smiled and shook her head. Gesturing to the stranger, she said, “Balini, this is Alanis. She’s one of our translators.”
Alanis flashed Balini a smile and leaned against the knotted, wooden cane in her hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said with an accent Balini didn’t quite recognize.
“I’m trying to convince Balini to join the crew,” Mara explained.
“Oh? You a sailor?” Alanis questioned.
Balini stammered slightly. “No, I-”
“She’s a mage,” Mara interjected. “A very gifted mage.”
Alanis hummed and nodded her head. “Well, there’s plenty of mages onboard already. You’ll fit right in.” Looking past the two fairies, Alanis sighed. “If you’ll excuse me.” And then she was off, walking towards a human and elf pair arguing in another language.
Watching Alanis for a few seconds more, Balini turned to Mara then and asked, “If she’s a translator, then what are you?”
“Boatswain. I’m responsible for looking after the crew and the ship, reporting any problems with the sails or the rigging to the captain. Among other things. Nothing I can’t handle,” Mara said with a wink.
“And Kai? What’s their job?”
“Kai’s always been an incredible navigator, even in the middle of the worst storm you could imagine. Which makes them both helmsman and navigator.”
Balini nodded her understanding before she tilted her head back, staring up at the sails and the fairies flying about the rigging. Being onboard a ship again brought back dreams of adventure and travel, but Balini quickly pushed those thoughts aside. She had long outgrown such childish notions and had more important duties to fulfill than running off with a handsome pirate and her strange counterpart.
Fiddling with the strap of her pack, Balini looked over her shoulder at the gangway that led down to the docks. She started for it, ready to go back to the tavern where she belonged, but stopped herself almost immediately. She had followed Mara and Kai here because of the captain. And although every logical part of her mind was screaming at her that it wasn’t possible, Balini couldn’t help hoping that this captain was the person she was looking for.
“The captain,” Balini said suddenly, drawing the pirate’s attention. “Can I see them yet?”
Before Mara could reply, Kai suddenly ran through the crowd to stand in front of them. They began rapidly moving their hands, signaling and gesturing in a way that Balini couldn’t understand. As they finished, Mara’s gaze turned back to Balini. “They say the captain can see you now,” she said.
Kai gestured to Balini with a wave of their hand, then turned and walked off. Balini hesitated for a moment, wondering if perhaps she was making a mistake, but then she reminded herself why she had come to the ship in the first place.
Swallowing her worries, Balini pulled away from Mara and started into the crowd after Kai. On one side of the deck was a balcony with a single door in the wall beneath it. Kai was standing beside the door and waved their hand at Balini again, obviously wanting her to hurry. As Balini drew closer, Kai pushed open the door and stepped past it.
The door led to a hallway with a staircase in the center. Six more doors were set into the walls, three on either side, and a final door was placed at the far end behind the staircase. Kai approached that door and knocked once before opening it.
It was too dark for Balini to see anything inside the room other than a few shadowed objects illuminated with thin strips of sunlight. Peering through the open doorway, Kai gestured something to a person Balini couldn’t see.
“Thank you, Kai,” said a woman in a low, rough voice. “Let her in, please.”
Turning back to Balini, Kai opened the door completely and gestured for the fairy to enter. Balini nodded in thanks and stepped through the doorway into a scarcely furnished room illuminated by two windows at the back, and a single diya placed on a table. Standing in front of the table was a fairy with swirling blue, scarred wings. She wore dark trousers, leather boots, and a loose fitting blouse the same shade as a twilight sky. A single braid draped over her shoulder and down her torso, reaching just below her hips.
As Balini finally lifted her eyes towards the woman’s face, she felt her heart skip a beat. Her chest tightened and old, painful memories resurfaced. It was suddenly a challenge to breathe.
Balini’s voice cracked and trembled as the name of her long lost best friend fell from her lips. “Nirvatha?”
Nirvatha narrowed her eyes in confusion. She searched the other fairy’s face in confusion. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“It’s me, Balini.” Realizing that her friend had known her by a different name, Balini repeated her birth name with a grimace. “Balaram.”
Nirvatha stared thoughtfully at her for a few moments and suddenly gasped in realization. “By the gods... Balaram?”
Balini inhaled sharply and threw herself at Nirvatha, tears already rolling down her cheeks. “You’re alive!” she exclaimed. She pulled back and stared disbelievingly at Nirvatha’s stunned face. “All this time, I thought- I can’t believe it.”
“Yes, I’m alive. But look at you! You’ve changed,” Nirvatha said in surprise, clasping her friend by the shoulder.
“Many years ago.”
“Balini,” Nirvatha murmured, testing the name. She smiled a moment later and pulled the other fairy into a brief embrace. “It’s a good name.”
Once they had separated again, Balini gazed wide eyed at her friend. “When Mara said your name, I could hardly believe it. After all these years, it didn’t seem possible. I mean, your mother, she said- she told the city you were dead.”
“She probably thought we were,” Nirvatha said.
Glancing past her friend, Balini eagerly searched the room. “Vasavi,” she said. “Where is she? Is she here?”
Nirvatha shook her head. “No.”
“Is she- Is she dead?”
“No! No, Vasavi is perfectly fine,” Nirvatha assured her. “She stayed behind in Thirukonamalai. We’ll be returning for her once we leave port.”
“When is that?”
“Within the hour, if possible,” Nirvatha answered. “Will you be joining us?”
Balini exhaled lightly. “There’s nothing I would love more.”
Nirvatha smiled and gently grasped the other fairy’s arm. “Good,” she said as she started for the door. “Come with me.”
Following Nirvatha outside to the main deck, Balini remained silent as they approached Mara and Kai. Kai was gesturing to Mara, but paused when they noticed the two fairies drawing near.
“Captain?” Mara acknowledged, sparing Balini a curious look.
“Bala- Balini will be joining us,” Nirvatha explained, ignoring her mistake. “Because you recruited her, Mara, you will be her supervisor and act as her teacher.”
Mara nodded seriously. “Understood, ma’am.”
“As soon as we leave port, I’ll make an announcement to the crew. Until then, show her around the ship so she can familiarize herself with it. I’ll continue supervising everyone until we set sail. Balini,” the captain continued as she turned her attention to her friend, “you may have one of the empty passenger cabins. Mara will show you there. And Kai, I want you to prepare for our departure.”
Mara and Kai nodded in unison. “Yes, ma’am,” Mara answered, while Kai signaled their understanding with a simple gesture.
Nirvatha turned to Balini then. “I’m sorry I can’t stay with you, but there are duties that require my attention.”
“I understand,” Balini assured her friend, although she couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice.
“We’ll talk this evening,” Nirvatha said softly as she leaned closer to Balini. “I promise. But until then, I’m afraid I’ll be very busy.” Drawing herself to her full height, Nirvatha’s voice returned to its regular volume. “If you have any other belongings to bring on board or goodbyes to make, take care of them now.” With a final nod of her head, Nirvatha returned to the cabin they had previously exited.
Briefly signaling something to Mara, Kai nodded in acknowledgement at Balini before following their captain. Mara looked to Balini and said, “I’ll take you to your room first. You can leave your things there and then I’ll show you around the ship.”
Letting Mara take the lead, Balini followed her through the same doorway that led to Nirvatha’s room. Mara went to the third door on the left and wordlessly pulled it open. Balini entered the room slowly, noting the simple bed frame against one wall and small trunk on the floor beside it. There were no windows or openings in the walls, just two oil lamps attached to opposite walls and a single, unlit diya in front of the trunk.
Setting her sack down on the bed, Balini looked back at Mara and thanked her. “The captain must really like you,” Mara noted as she crossed her arms over her chest. She leaned against the doorframe and raised an eyebrow.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because these cabins were meant for officers or important crew members, and new recruits always sleep with the rest of the crew on one of the lower decks.”
The fairy’s dark, serious eyes sought an answer to an unspoken question. Balini exhaled heavily and turned her attention to her sack, absently fiddling with one of the loose strands along its seam. “Nirvatha was my friend once,” she said slowly. “And Vasavi. It was a long time ago...”
“That’s what changed your mind.”
“I haven’t seen them in years,” Balini murmured as she finally met Mara’s eyes again. A memory flashed through her mind: sharp, golden light, shouting, the whip of a tree branch across her cheek. She closed her eyes and ducked her head in an attempt to push the memory away. “When you said Nirvatha’s name, I hoped that it was her, however unlikely.”
The sensation of Mara’s eyes on her made Balini realize what she had just revealed. Pushing her pack onto the bed so it was sprawled across the mattress, Balini attempted a smile. “Forget about it,” she said. “Didn’t Nirvatha say you have to show me around?”
Mara pushed off of the doorway with her shoulder, her arms falling to her sides. “Well, these are the passenger cabins,” she said as she stepped into the hallway with an exaggerated gesture.
Balini raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. “Really,” she countered dryly. “I would never have guessed.”
Acknowledging her comment with only an exaggerated eye roll, Mara started for the main deck. As Balini trailed along beside her, Mara pointed first to the mast in the center of the deck and then to the mast towards the front of the ship. “The main mast and the foremast,” she said. Turning around, she pointed to the other two masts. “The mizzen mast and the quarter mast.”
Balini repeated each name under her breath, keen to memorize everything as quickly as possibly. “Obviously, this is the main deck,” Mara continued. Raising her arm again, she pointed to the cabin-like structure that the foremast jutted out from. “That is the forecastle. Some of the soldiers and gunners sleep in there, and it’s also used for minor storage. The deck above the passenger cabins? That’s the quarterdeck. I’d say it’s a bit obvious what that’s for,” she teased, gesturing to the ship’s wheel a few paces back from the railing.
Just in front of the main mast was a great opening in the deck. Balini could see that the grated wooden panels that normally covered it had been pushed aside and were resting on either side of the opening. “This is the cargo hatch,” Mara explained as she started down the steps leading to the lower decks, “and down here is the gun deck.”
Several crew members were still carrying things from deck to deck and Balini stood on the left side of the stairway, careful to stay out of their way. At least twenty square openings were placed in intervals along each wall, with one large cannon behind each one. Along the middle section of the deck was a string of hammocks that stretched from the front of the ship to the back. A few crew members remained on the deck, ensuring the cannons were secured in place.
Mara pointed to the back part of the deck where a wall had been put up. She explained that behind the wall was the galley, where the food was prepared, and a small table where some of the crew could eat.
The deck below that was the orlop deck. Nearly the entire deck was filled with barrels, boxes, and trunks, along with dozens more hammocks strung up across the ceiling. Like it was on the previous level, the very back of the deck was sectioned off into a small room the served as the infirmary.
“The lowest level of the ship isn’t worth seeing,” Mara said as she and Balini walked up to the main deck. “Most of the storage is down there, along with the magazine, the brig, and the bilge pump. You’ll see it all eventually.”
Dodging crew members and rolling barrels, Mara and Balini headed to the quarterdeck. Once there, Balini pointed to a large room situated at the very back of the deck. “What’s that?” she questioned.
“The navigator’s cabin. It has the best view on the entire ship, with the exception of the lookouts in the rigging.”
“I take it you’ve seen everything?” Nirvatha said as she climbed on deck.
Mara immediately stood to attention. “Yes, Captain,” she answered.
Nirvatha adjusted her newly donned hat. “Excellent. Thank you, Mara.”
“Is the crew ready?” When the captain answered affirmatively, Mara said, “I’ll make sure everything’s in order, ma’am.” Flashing Balini a smile, the pirate then hurried down to the main deck.
As Balini moved to stand next to her friend, she watched Mara walk around the lower deck. Several elves and fairies worked at the rigging, while the rest of the elves and humans worked on deck or on the pier. Balini wondered then what her role onboard might be. Would she be in the rigging with the other fairies or perhaps below deck, loading supplies? Would she be with Mara or Kai, or would she be with a stranger?
Pushing her worries aside, Balini glanced at Nirvatha. She paused as she started to speak, her eyes falling to her friend’s arms. Nirvatha had rolled up the long sleeves of her shirt and placed her hands on the wheel; her right arm was no longer flesh and bone, but wooden.
“It’s nothing, Balini,” Nirvatha said, her gaze focused straight ahead.
“Just leave it,” she snapped, finally glancing at Balini from the corner of her eye.
Balini fell silent and Nirvatha looked back at the crew below her. Standing on top of the railing, Mara raised her arm in the air and gazed up at her captain. Nirvatha copied the gesture and suddenly Mara let out a shout. At her command, the gangway was retrieved, the anchor was raised, and the ship was untied from the pier. Finally, the sails were unfurled and the wind strained against them.
The ship started forward, slowly but surely. A rush of adrenaline shot through Balini’s veins as she clung to the railing. The wind, which she hadn’t taken much notice of earlier, suddenly felt stronger and wilder. Her braid was tossed in the air as her sari whipped around her.
It was difficult for Balini to know where to look. The practiced and effortless movements of the crew were almost like a dance: well-rehearsed and beautifully performed. On the right side of the ship Mara stood proudly on the railing, grasping at the rigging to keep herself steady while the wind played with her hair. She was a beautiful sight to behold. Yet even more beautiful was Balini’s long lost friend standing beside her, the mid-day sun streaming through the clouds and shining upon them both.
Once the ship had left port and reached the open ocean, Mara hurried back to the quarterdeck. “Captain, shall I call Kai back now?” she asked.
Nirvatha nodded, keeping her left hand on the wheel while her right rested against her hip. “Yes. I’ll make the announcement when they’re ready.”
Glancing in confusion at her friend, Balini said, “What did you mean?”
“Did Mara not tell you?” When Balini shook her head, Nirvatha smiled. “You’ll see soon enough.”
Balini leaned over the railing to watch as Mara walked across the deck. She jumped onto the railing again, gazing down at the ocean with a smile. Confused and curious, Balini looked over the side of the ship to find Kai laughing as they swam alongside the hull. They grabbed onto a handle attached to the ship - the beginning of a ladder - and pulled themselves out of the water. Their chest was bare and half covered by their auburn hair; but instead of the long, muscular legs Balini had expected, a scaled burgundy tail emerged from the waves.
“What the-?” Balini gasped as Kai climbed up the side of the ship, their tail separating and slowly turning into legs. “By the gods. A siren.”
“You’ll find plenty of those on this ship, Balini,” Nirvatha said, her voice tinged with amusement.
“But aren’t sirens dangerous?”
“No more than you, or I, or any other mage.”
Looking back to the deck as Kai climbed over the railing and into Mara’s arms, Balini sighed. Sirens were known to be beautiful creatures that brutally killed their victims once they had been lured in. Kai never spoke, it seemed, so it was plausible that they were less dangerous without a siren’s song. But if there were others onboard, then everyone would be at risk.
“It’s best if you leave your prejudices behind, Balini,” Nirvatha suggested, “because they are not allowed on this ship. Whether siren or mage, everyone on this ship is loyal and not a threat to their crew mates.” She seemed to sense Balini’s hesitation because she added, “We were all as afraid and unsure as you are, of mages or sirens or humans. But prejudice breeds distrust and neither belongs on this ship.”
“I understand,” Balini muttered, her heart pounding with embarrassment.
“Captain?” Mara’s voice made Balini turn and she felt her face flush when she saw Kai, wearing only their flax skirt, standing next to her. “Kai’s ready.”
“Thank you. Kai, I presume everything is in order?” Kai nodded and Nirvatha turned back to the wheel with a smirk. “Good. Now put a shirt on before Balini faints.”
Kai and Nirvatha both laughed as Balini suddenly contemplated making herself invisible. Kai winked playfully at Balini before starting for their cabin. Still blushing and feeling more than a little flustered, Balini moved to stand in the open space between Nirvatha and Mara. Placing two fingers between her lips, Nirvatha let out a loud whistle that made Balini cringe.
The entire crew seemed to pause and everyone looked towards the quarterdeck, waiting for their captain. When she was sure everyone’s focus was on her, Nirvatha began her announcement. “As some of you may have noticed earlier, there is a newcomer onboard. Balini,” the captain said as she placed her hand on the fairy’s shoulder, “is an old friend of both myself and Vasavi, and she is a part of this crew. I expect her to be treated with respect and patience while she learns her duties. Is that understood?”
A chorus of affirmative replies echoed throughout the crew and although Balini was uncomfortable with so many eyes on her, she was relieved that no one was protesting her joining them.
Bracing herself against the railing, Mara grinned mischievously. “Now back to work!” she ordered.